Behind the Mask

Getting Used to Masks: Strategies for Tolerating Face Coverings

Is your child struggling to tolerate a face mask? Does the mask end up on the floor instead of their face? Well, looks like they’re here to stay so hopefully we can help them get used to masks

Child wearing Mask
You can’t see it, but I’m smiling. Photo by Janko Ferlic

After months stuck at home, wearing a face mask will help to reopen your child’s world. They will be able to safely engage during play dates, participate in camp activities, or visit family members they haven’t seen in a while. In fact, tolerating a mask either has or may become a daily demand as face coverings are now required to go to the dentist, return to school, or shop in a store. For many children, however, this new mask requirement can feel overwhelming, anxiety-inducing, or sensory overloading. The ability to wear a mask for longer than a few minutes may take time, patience, and practice. Remember to frame the mask experience positively. Be mindful of how you, as parents, talk about your own mask wearing experience. This is a difficult time for all of us. Empower your children to feel in control of their health and safety by wearing a mask. 

Masks: Sensory Overload

Masks cause light touch sensations behind the ears, across the nose, over the mouth, and just below the jawline. Many of these areas of the face and neck are very sensitive to tactile input and, in general, light touch input is more alerting than firm touch input. At first, wearing a mask may make your child feel more on edge or alert. 

The tactile sensation of the mask may not be the only input alerting your child. Their auditory system is also working harder to interpret garbled verbal communication. They are most likely struggling to interpret body language without the nonverbal cues we can usually read on someone’s face. These factors can all contribute to sensory overload. 

Fortunately, there are several strategies you can utilize to increase your child’s tolerance level for wearing masks. 

Incorporate Calming Inputs 

When practicing wearing a mask, pair the experience with calming deep pressure and weight bearing inputs. A weighted blanket, yoga poses, or gentle squeezes up the arms may help to offset that light touch alerting response. 

Getting used to it: Feel and Fit

Is that a bunny?

Many of your child’s preferred clothing brands have released their own lines of masks which can be a great place to start your search! Consider the different textiles used to make masks: cotton, nylon, polyester, spandex, etc. Take fabric scraps or clothing materials and have your child explore the different types against their cheek. Ask them which one feels the best. 

Consider the type of mask. Does your child tolerate a mask with elastic that goes behind the ears? If not, perhaps a mask that ties around the head or has adjustable ear loops would be more comfortable.  Maybe your child does not tolerate the metal wire that sits along the nose. Explore wire-free masks whose shape and flexibility still provide that contoured fit. 

Get creative!

Repurpose their favorite shirt they’ve outgrown and turn it into a mask. There are tutorials available online to help create a mask that is the right size and fit. 

Have a Fashion Show 

Work that mask

Together, try out a few different masks! Let your child pick their favorite one based on comfort and appearance.  Whatever type of mask they choose, pick a fun way to describe face coverings like “ninja” or “superhero” masks. This has the added benefit of giving your child additional practice wearing masks.  

What Did You Say?

My bear can’t understand you.

Masks can affect speech, making language sound more muffled or muted. Hearing the difference between similar sounds (think a “p” and a “b”) can be  harder when speaking through masks. This can be challenging and frustrating. Sensory overload can affect your child’s listening skills, emotional regulation, and frustration tolerance. When giving them verbal directions through your mask, speak slowly and check for comprehension periodically. Use visual cues and exaggerated body language to help get your point across.  

Mask Game Night

Hold a masked family board game, trivia, or karaoke night. The interaction necessary for these games will allow your child to practice communicating with this new obstacle in a low stakes environment. The whole family can practice tolerating, speaking, and listening together!

Funny Faces Game

Masks can significantly impact our ability to read facial expressions or recognize even a familiar face. This can feel unsettling. For a child who struggles socially, masks can make it even harder to pick on on social cues. 

Play a facial expression game with family members. When you are all wearing masks, have your child try to guess if you are making a happy, sad, silly, or surprised face. This will help your child to learn to rely on other parts of the face and body in order to pick up on others’ feelings. 

Don’t Forget: Take a Moment to Breathe

At first, the new experience of a mask may lead to increased feelings of anxiety. While wearing a mask, remind your child every half hour to take 5 deep belly breaths. Have them place their hand on their belly to feel their belly rise and fall. 

Get used to Masks: Small Steps Lead to Big Changes

Some children may have to begin by touching the mask to their nose or giving it a kiss. From there, trial wearing a mask for just a few minutes at a time while doing a preferred activity. Build stamina by wearing it at home before branching out slowly to familiar places. Just like other sensory work, this will take time. Remember that every time we wear a mask we are working towards a future where we will no longer have to!

Remember, if you or your child have sensory issues, we can help. We are the area’s leading practitioner. Head over to our Intake tab to get started!


About Sasco River Center

A multidisciplinary practice offering a range of diagnostic and therapy services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families; specializing in Collaborative & Comprehensive Testing, Psychotherapy & Sensory Processing.

We are a merger of Sensory Kids & The Southfield Center for Development